The James Begg Society

The James Begg Society

Publishers of Protestant, Reformed Christian Literature

Memoirs of Rev James Begg, D.D., by Rev. Thomas Smith, D.D.



D R. BEGG'S leaving Lady Glenorchy's was confessedly a protest against the policy which excluded chapel ministers from any share in the government of the Church. He was conscious of powers which might find appropriate exercise in the discussion of questions of Church polity, which could be discussed effectively only in the Church courts. His enthusiastic admiration of the leaders of the liberal or popular party made him long for the opportunity of standing side by side with them in the chivalrous and apparently almost desperate struggle on which they had entered. And they too were desirous of having the aid of one in whom they saw fair promise of "yeoman service." Moreover, Dr. Begg had a conviction, which he retained throughout his life, that the position of a chapel-minister, such as it then was in the Church of Scotland, was not only unfavourable, but positively unscriptural. He regarded it as a putting asunder of what God has joined together; a virtual supersession of the scriptural office of the teaching ruler, and an unauthorised substitution of a non-ruling teacher. Holding these views the position of a chapel minister - and the minister of Lady Glenorchy's was scarcely even that - was peculiarly distasteful to him; and he would have been willing to exchange it for the ministry of the humblest and remotest parish in Scotland. As it happened, the acceptance of the call to Paisley involved no such sacrifice. It meant, indeed, the imposition on him of double the amount of pulpit-work which fell to him in Lady Glenorchy's, for Dr. Jones was still generally able for the forenoon service. But it would have been strange if he, in the full vigour of early manhood, had shrunk from the performance of an amount of work which hundreds of his brethren all over the country were constantly performing. No doubt he had felt the work at Maxwelltown heavy, but in one respect the work at Paisley would be lighter, as the pastoral supervision of a large congregation, whose members were scattered over a large and indefinite territory, required a great amount of walking; whereas in Paisley his charge would be confined to a comparatively small section of the town.

In point of fact, the population of the Middle parish in 1831 was 9,884, - a number, of course, hopelessly beyond the possibility of any effective pastoral superintendence on the part of the minister. Thus from the period of his going to Paisley Dr. Begg had an experience, which made an indelible impression on his mind, of the utter inadequacy of the provision made in the Established ecclesiastical system of Scotland for exercising a real influence over the population of our large towns. In such a town the minister was constrained, with the name of parochial minister, to occupy the position of a congregational minister; and Dr. Begg, never ceased to regard this necessity as a great evil. I need not say that there is a large portion of our population who conscientiously dissent from the doctrines of the Established Church; and another large portion who, regarding an Established Church as an unwarranted innovation, refuse to belong to it simply because it is established; and it is right that all facilities should be afforded to all of these for obtaining the ministrations of pastors who represent their several views. But beyond these there are multitudes, in all our cities and larger towns, who are altogether neglected, and whom neither the Established Church nor the Dissenting bodies have been able to reach and to reclaim. How they are to be evangelised is a problem that urgently demands solution; and the devoutest hope that can be cherished is, that when the present period of ecclesiastical unrest shall have come to an end, men will gird themselves for its solution under an adequate sense of its unspeakable importance - an importance which ought to outweigh all personal and all denominational interests.

For nearly a century after the Reformation, the whole inhabitants of Paisley were under the pastoral care of the one minister of the Abbey Church. In 1641 that church was made a collegiate charge, and such it has since continued to be. In 1736 the Burgh was separated from the Abbey, and was constituted a distinct parish. Twenty years later the Burgh parish was divided into the High Church and the Low Church parishes; and in 1781 it was further divided, and the Middle Church parish was formed. Afterwards, as we shall see there were added five quoad sacra churches and a Gaelic chapel. Still, even then, all the provision of church accommodation in connection with the Established Church was for 12,744 out of a population of 57,880. The Dissenting bodies, viz the Reformed Presbyterians, the Burghers, the United Secession, the Relief, Independents of different classes (including Baptists and Methodists), the Episcopalians, and the Romanists, provided 16,130 sittings more; making in all 28,874, or almost exactly one for every two of the population, which, I believe, is generally regarded as an adequate provision. Dr. Begg's predecessors in the ministry of the Middle parish from its formation in 1781 were Dr. John Snodgrass, 1781-97, and Mr. Jonathan Ranken, 1798-1831. In the other charges in Paisley some notable names occur. The following may be mentioned. Robert Boyd, of Trochrig, was minister of the Abbey Church, 1626-27. 24 Alexander Dunlop was minister of the second charge of the�Abbey parish from 1644 to 1653, and of the first charge from the latter date to 1663, when he was summoned before the Lords of the Council, and, on refusing to take the oath, was ordained to be "banished forth of his Majesty's dominions." It does not appear that he ever actually left the kingdom; but he was silenced. He died in 1667. James Stirling, who succeeded Dunlop in the second charge when he was promoted to the first, was one of the authors of "Naphtali," the other being Sir James Stewart of Goodtrees.�

[Footnote 24: There is a confusion among the authorities as to the order in which Boyd of Trochrig held his several offices the Principalship of the University of Glasgow, the ministry of Paisley, and the Principalship of the University of Edinburgh. He had been minister at Vertali, in France, and afterwards minister and Professor of Theology at Saumur. Thence, according to "Memorable Characteristics," by Mr. John Livingstone, he returned to Scotland, and became "Principal of the College of Glasgow and minister at Govan." Livingstone studied under him in the College, and attended his church at Govan from 1618 to 1622. He writes thus:- "Being filled with anxiety, and finding that he could not peaceably continue in that station, he left the College at Glasgow, and having a call to be minister at Paisley, some popishly and profanely affected threw out his goods and stopped his entry; yea, when he had been received minister in Edinburgh, and the greatest part of all the well-affected leaving the rest of the kirks and constantly hearing him the rest of the ministers, being prelatically affected and moved with envy, dealt with the King that he should be put from that employment." Here it seems to be intimated that he went from Glasgow to Paisley, and from Paisley to Edinburgh. But the "Statistical Account of Paisley" gives the date of his abortive ministry there as 1626-27; while the "Edinburgh University Calendar " makes him Principal there in 1622.]

But the most noted and most influential man among the ministers of earlier days in Scotland was Dr. Witherspoon, who, after being successively minister of Yester in East Lothian, and of Beith in Ayrshire, became minister of the Low Church parish of Paisley in 1757. There he remained till 1768, when he became President of the great American College of Princeton, and was a prominent man in the events which issued in the formation of the great Western Republic. His writings are voluminous. They relate to a wide range of subjects, theological, religious, ecclesiastical, and political, and are worthy of all commendation. I shall mention only his book on Regeneration, and his Ecclesiastical Characteristics. The former is one of our most esteemed religious classics, and the latter is almost worthy of taking rank with the immortal "Provincial Letters," which it resembles so much, that it can hardly be doubted that it was Pascal who suggested to its author the idea of employing sarcasm and irony in the cause of truth. I do not know whether Witherspoon's writings are much read now. I am sure they may be read with pleasure and profit.

The Middle Church became a separate charge, as has been stated, in 1781, and in the fifty years of its separate existence Dr. Begg had only two predecessors in its ministry. Dr. Snodgrass, who was minister for sixteen years (1781-97), was a man of considerable note in his day. The following is the conclusion of the notice given of him by the celebrated Dr. Balfour of Glasgow, in preaching his funeral sermon; and commendation by Dr. Balfour meant something very different from indiscriminate eulogy:-

"As he began, so he uniformly conducted his ministry, by preaching 'not himself, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and himself your servant for Jesus' sake.' This was not only his subject and solemn profession when he first addressed you from the place where I now stand, but it was the unvarying aim of all his ministrations; and what should endear him to your memory is, that his only desire of life was to secure this grandest and most interesting theme, and with his best powers of health and voice to press it upon your hearts in all its importance and influence. Of these things you will recollect striking proofs, not only in all his sermons, but in his prevailing temper and uniform conduct. Did he not learn of his Divine Master to be meek and lowly in heart and manners? Though he was continually adding to his stock of mental endowments, he was not wise in his own conceit, nor puffed up with his superior and growing knowledge. So far was he from the pride of ostentation and boasting; that public duty alone brought him into view; and that discharged, he was glad to return to the quiet retreats and humble walks of private study and domestic life. This, however, was not the unwilling modesty of a feeble, irresolute, or timid mind. For none acted with more decision and courage, independence and energy. When any object possessed real magnitude and importance, of which he was a ready and accurate judge, he shrank not from the acknowledgment and pursuit of it on account of any difficulty or danger. With equal firmness, and zeal, and wisdom, he maintained it against all opposition. There can be no doubt that he was fonder of home and of his study than of any public appearance; but if it was difficult to draw him forth, when convinced it was his duty he cheerfully obeyed the call, and then appeared with greater advantage and more effect.

"While he yielded to conviction, he detested the suppleness of temporising compliance. In the cause of truth, especially evangelical truth, he never flinched. He fought the good fight, he kept the faith; and, warmly attached to the sterling principles of civil and religious liberty, he abhorred every encroachment upon them, while he was equally a zealous and a steady friend of lawful authority and good order. While animated with the purest patriotism, he was not less animated with universal benevolence. His great and good mind wished and sought salvation to those who were far off, as well as to those who were nigh. The�honour and applause, the pleasures and riches, of this world made but a slight impression on his mind. Though able to fill any station in the Church with personal credit and public honour, he never sought great things for himself. While others of much inferior talents pressed forward to hold the pre-eminence, he delighted in the enjoyment of the shade. He loved the place of his fathers; he was attached to Paisley; he was attached to you of this congregation. To improve his own mind in private, and be useful to you in public, in promoting your best, your eternal interests, seemed to be the height of his ambition here. But his great Lord found use for him in a better world. He is entered into his Master's joy. We are left in the vale of tears, to lament our loss, to pursue our journey, and to prepare for a happy and eternal re-union in the heavenly mansions."

Dr. Snodgrass was the author of "A Commentary, with Notes, on a Part of the Book of the Revelation of John," which was well received at the time of its publication, but which has shared the lot which seems to be the heritage of almost all Apocalyptic commentaries.

The successor of Dr. Snodgrass, and the immediate predecessor of Dr. Begg, was Mr. Jonathan Ranken, who was minister of the Middle parish for thirty-three years (1798-1831). He seems to have been an excellent man a sound evangelical preacher, and a diligent and faithful pastor.

In those days, ere railroads and penny newspapers had annihilated individual and local characteristics, the people of Paisley had a distinctive character of their own. Good-naturedly designated by their Glasgow neighbours the "Paisley bodies," they were distinguished by the possession of a peculiarly large amount of those qualities which are commonly regarded as possessed by the Scottish people generally in comparison with other peoples, - sagacity and shrewdness, a quiet observation of the circumstances which might make for or against their own interests, and unwearying patience in turning these circumstances to the best account. Their manufactures, though on a very small scale as compared with their subsequent development, had already attained a great repute, and Paisley shawls were known and worn and admired in all the continents of the world. Dr Begg's residence in Paisley was in the transition period midway between the days when the "Paisley bodies" were a distinct community, with but little in common with the rest of the world, - excepting in so far as the rest of the world purchased the shawls which they wove, - and the time when Paisley was to become virtually a suburb of Glasgow, - or, as the "bodies" would perhaps express it, Glasgow a suburb of Paisley. He came at a most fortunate time, precisely when the tide was beginning to flow; and he was precisely the man to take advantage of the opportunity. To what extent he contributed towards the immense advance which the town has made during the past half-century, and how far he influenced the direction of that advance, it is of course impossible to estimate with any precision. But no one who knew him will doubt that he was "the right man in the right place," and that he must have exerted a potent influence over that spirit of enterprise which has wrought so mightily in the extension of the town and the increase of its wealth.

The patronage of the Middle Church was vested in the Town Council of Paisley. But on the death of Mr. Ranken it was intimated that, if the congregation could agree in recommending a successor, the Council were willing to appoint him. The Middle Parish had, from its first formation, had an evangelical ministry; and it might have been predicted that the man whom the people would choose would be the man who most earnestly and powerfully preached the simple gospel of the grace of God. In keeping with this anticipation was their choice of Dr. Begg. He was accordingly presented by the Council, and all the ordinary steps were taken for his translation from Lady Glenorchy's and his induction into the Middle Church, which took place on the 25th of November 1831.

From many quarters I have testimony borne to the power of Dr. Begg's ministry in Paisley, and to the affection with which he was regarded by all classes in his congregation, as well as to the high position which he held in the estimation of the whole community. Of these I shall present a single specimen.

Among the few letters which Dr. Begg had preserved, I found one addressed to him on occasion of the celebration of the completion of the fiftieth year of his ministry. I applied to its writer, Mr. George Dobie, and received from him the following letter, which is interesting as showing the friendly feeling which subsisted between Dr. Begg and the congregation of the Middle Church, not only while he was their minister, but all through his subsequent life. Such feeling is creditable both to minister and people:-

"CASTLEHEAD, PAISLEY, 9th September 1884.

"DEAR SIR, - I duly received your letter of 6th inst. regarding our late friend Dr. Begg. My time in various capacities is much occupied; but I hasten to reply, that I am afraid that I cannot be of much service to you, but what I can do shall be done cheerfully. There are a few people here who sat under his ministry. Those who occur to me are mostly females, from whom I may gather something that might to a certain extent prove interesting.... I am old enough to remember as a boy Dr. Begg's tall, slight, handsome figure marching along our streets. He was very popular here as a preacher, and I have frequently been one of a crowded audience who listened with rapt attention to his earnest, eloquent, and impressive expositions of God's Word. He came here, I think, in 1832, and I have occasion to remember - from a family incident - that he preached his farewell sermon - and an impressive sermon it was - in June 1835.

"I presume you are aware that he came for many years to assist his friend Dr. Fraser at our October communion. His appearance was always hailed with pleasure; and his evening sermons on these occasions never failed to fill the church with an attentive and admiring crowd, many of whom remained behind to shake hands with their old friend.

"On the occasion of the death of our loved and lamented pastor Dr. Fraser, Dr. Begg was at once fixed on as the proper person to preach his funeral sermon, which he did in a very able and feeling manner in the month of September 1879. A considerable portion of this sermon was published in the Glasgow Herald, a copy of which I enclose, in case you may not have it. I do this, of course, with the view of illustrating the character of Dr. Begg, and of showing the high value he attached to the principles and conduct he praises so highly in his departed friend....

"During Mr. Begg's ministry here the Voluntary controversy was at its height; and he and his youthful contemporary, the Rev. John Macnaughton, played an important part in these stirring times. They were both powerful platform speakers, and many a public meeting they addressed of a very exciting character. In my opinion, notwithstanding Dr. Begg's ability as a preacher, he was even more powerful as a platform speaker, and he had many opportunities of testing his powers during his sojourn in Paisley.... - Yours very sincerely, GEO. DOBIE.